Against Textual Tourism: An Interview with Translator Nguyễn An Lý (Part One)

Translator and PhD Student Rachel Min Park speaks with Nguyễn An Lý about her most recent translation of Thuận’s Chinatown. In Part One of this two-part series, they discuss the general practice of translation, Chinatown’s formal elements, and the role of (translated) literature in interrogating notions of a homogeneous language, culture, and ethnic community. Chinatown by Thuận and translated by Nguyễn An Lý is out now by Tilted Axis Press in the UK and New Directions in the United States.

RP: Chinatown is writer Thuận’s second novel, published in 2005, and her first to be translated into French in early 2009 by Đoàn Cầm Thi. Your translation, with Tilted Axis Press in the UK and New Directions in the US, is her first translation into English. I’m always curious as to why translators choose certain works to translate and so I wanted to ask what first drew you to this work, why you wanted to translate it in particular?

AL: I think we love to imagine that translators have much more agency than they have in real life, but most translation jobs (especially with emerging translators) start out as a simple commission. One day Deborah Smith, whom I had met in Korea at a publishers’ event a few years back, contacted me and asked for my opinion about this author and novel that she had just been recommended. Assuming it was just a pick-your-brain (or maybe ask-an-insider) kind of thing, I answered as honestly as a colleague could: that I had read Chinatown when it was first published and shed many a tear over it, that I thought (and still think!) it was the finest of the author’s repertoire so far, that she would need a competent translator for Thuận’s other books but an excellent one for Chinatown (actually the advice of my friend and co-editor of Zzz Review, Quyên Nguyễn), and that perhaps it would be better—less risky—to put out the other books before this very challenging novel? Deborah, in her wonderful way, said she believed in the potential of the project and offered me the chance to translate that very “very challenging” book! I would have been so overwhelmed (and intimidated) had I not thought that there was no way my translation sample would pass muster. It would also be my first ever translation into English and while I know where I’m at when translating into Vietnamese, I was realistic enough about my English ability not to delude myself into thinking I would be that “excellent translator.” So I went into that sample all carefree and happy as a lark. And then somehow Deborah loved it, and English PEN liked it, and I signed the contract, and then came the trepidation.

To be totally honest, if it had been my choice, I don’t know if I would have elected to translate it. The book is just too close to me. It was a big part of my youth and perhaps I, being (I suppose) quite a traditionalist in matters of translation, would not think of it first and foremost as a “classic”—I was actually considering trying my hand at a few 1970s or 1980s novels. So it was like the book chose me (this is such a cliché). And even now, I still think that someone with far better English than me would do more justice to Thuận’s shapeshifting and whip-smart sentences. But perhaps that someone would not favor such an approach as mine and the shape of the English edition would be very different. So perhaps this is how it’s meant to be (something I tell my translator self more and more these days!).

RP: Could you also share a little about your own experiences navigating the translation and publication process?

AL: My own experience navigating the work was that it was absolutely as hard as what I had imagined! And even harder when you have had snippets from the book lodged in your memory since forever and went through a phase aping the author’s style. One consequence was that I was sometimes overzealous with my Vietnamisms and Deborah as editor would have a hard time keeping me in check. I think it’s safe to say there were heated arguments! But it was fun trying to separate the strands, to see what is a Vietnamism that would just sound awkward in English, what would actually enrich it, and what is an idiosyncrasy of the author that we should do our best to preserve, apparent awkwardness and all. And it helped that Deborah had such sharp eyes and incredible attention to details—I once told her that in all my working life I had known only one editor that is as attentive as her, and that’s me! The feedback provided by Deborah, and later by Tynan Konage who edited the New Directions edition, were truly great mirrors through which I learned how to present the work in the best attire possible before going out on the stage. I’m happy that the responses and reviews so far seem positive, and see the book in the way(s) I wanted.

Of the post-editing process right until the publication date(s), I wouldn’t even use the word “navigation.” Kristen Alfaro and Hana Sandhu at Tilted Axis have practically led me (and Thuận) by hand, which is incredibly helpful because this was both our first encounter with the Anglophone publishing world. The same is true with everyone we met along the way. Having spent over a decade as an editor and translator in my country, I’m overwhelmed by the kindness and readiness with which I’m greeted every way I turn since I started on Chinatown.

RP: To turn to the work itself, when I first started reading Chinatown, I was struck by this odd sensation of simultaneously being unable to put it down, while also needing to walk away and pause in order to suture together the narrative’s various fragments. Elsewhere, in a review of the source text, Thang Dao eloquently described the book as a “box of puzzles somebody accidentally spilled onto the carpet… [a] maze of space and time.” I think so much of this feeling comes from the book’s form—the lack of paragraph breaks, no dialogue markers yet multiple voices (and often in multiple languages, from French to Chinese to Vietnamese), sentence fragments, repetition that spans from a phrase within the space of a single page to echoes that link disparate fragments from the beginning and conclusion. Yet Thuận seems to be aware of this and comments on it in often funny, ironic ways: “He said, you can spin whatever yarn you like but don’t skimp on the paragraph breaks, your readers need to catch their breath, and don’t forget a chapter break every few pages so they can practice counting to ten. I chortled. I hadn’t expected my readers to have such exacting demands.” [1] How did you navigate the book’s form in the process of translation, how did you view these formal aspects as they linked to the narrative?

AL: It seems funny to say now, but when I read it the first time, I didn’t really take notice of its formal peculiarities. Perhaps I was too engrossed in the story and my own tears as a 20-year-old. I know that many people find the book, in both Vietnamese and English, tiring and hard to follow, but to me it has always been something to read in one sitting. On the sentence level her writing is simple, intuitive, straightforward, fast-paced. The sentences and scenes are short and you decide to read just another page, but you’re already spirited into another Scheherazadian jump. And I must confess I didn’t even realize the lack of paragraph breaks until I read the e-book version.

As a translator, it’s a whole different story! When you approach it with a mind to deconstruct and then reconstruct the textual texture, the formal elements seem so in-your-face that you realize that it can’t but be a highly polished artifice. To cite an example: every single repetition in the original, whether a short phrase or a passage spanning lines, is an exact repetition, of copy-and-paste precision, even in parallels between the narrator’s and the I’m Yellow protagonist’s stories. This can only be the result of rigorous self-editing. In the face of such discipline from the author, the translator whose strategy is to preserve the form has no other choice but to conduct a similar hunt through the labyrinthine lines for the most innocuous sets of words, which I must say is a very laborious job with minimal return of investment. But there’s a certain satisfaction to follow the author’s trail and hit Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V, and to know that even if most readers won’t be aware that line 7 on page 147 is the very same as line 21 on page 64 (New Directions edition) unless they themselves conduct a tertiary hunt, it will contribute to their appreciation of the book in a subliminal way.

And it’s a strategy I decided on from the very start, despite my anxiety of possibly alienating new readers, because it is my habitual practice as a translator, but also because I think that it is this distinctive style that gives Chinatown its uniqueness. This style didn’t come from nowhere. It debuted in Thuận’s first novel Made in Vietnam (ironically never published in Vietnam) and was maintained less conspicuously in her third, Paris, 11th of August (I often dub them “Thuận’s early trilogy”), so I think most of the self-irony that you cited is a parody of the feedback she received for Made in Vietnam. In Chinatown, the artificiality of style came back with a vengeance—Thuận told me that her aim with this book was to be as “modern” and unique as possible and the book tired her out—but I think it actually enhances the book’s themes. The mental landscape of the narrator is rather sparse; in both her history with Thụy and her days as a single mom and secondary school teacher, there are not too many precious or out-of-the-ordinary landmarks, but what she does have comes back to her constantly. Her obsession with Thụy manifests as her obsession with those moments, and every time she comes back to one, it may be from another angle, to understand it in a different light.

Another function of the repetitions and echoes is that, as you said, they link disparate elements not only from different points in her book, but from different points in her life (see 21 on 64 and 7 on 147 above), thus creating a sense that in her life she is also going around and around in a kind of personal eternal return. (This is no doubt a reading influenced by my knowledge of her admiration for Milan Kundera, or perhaps by my own wish to link disparate elements from different authors that I myself admire…). They reinforce the parallelism between her life and that of the French guy who runs alongside her almost every week in the park but is never meant to join her; in the interpolated story of the “vagabond” artist, they hint at her own attempt to understand her existence from the eyes of another runaway husband, and at times, to perhaps project onto that very runaway her own wish of escaping that existence (Thuận’s fourth novel, T is missing—the title a nod to Proust’s sixth Lost Time book—tells of yet another runaway, an inscrutable Vietnamese wife, from the perspective of her French husband, the only French narrator in her books so far). Dropping the repetitions, I think, amounts to erasing a whole world of richly possible interpretations that we are allowed.

The absence of dialogue markers and the accompanying multiplicity of voices (and the relative lack of exclamation or question marks!) is another thing that I vowed to religiously adhere to (and failed spectacularly, of course, like every time a translator—or editor—states an absolutism in their strategies—or is it just me?!). I had toyed with the idea of supplying quotation marks or italicizing the offensive phrases (which would mean perhaps 20% of the book), but finally decided on a discreet comma, or at times in the US edition, a colon. 

For a story that is apparently so simple, analyzing such formal quirks makes up a big part of the reading experience, and there are hints that the reader is all but guaranteed to miss in their first reading(s). Chinatown is a book made for rereading—indeed for close reading and critical analysis, and even now I still discover new things when I read it. So I’m in a constant panic oh-what-if-I-mistranslated-that-one because you know as translators we’re expected to be infallible and always deliver the perfect definitive version at the first try.

RP: Everything you said just resonated with me so deeply—translation is always such an anxiety-filled process for me too, and I can certainly imagine how a text as intricate yet paradoxically “sparse” as Chinatown would heighten a lot of those difficulties. Maybe it’s just us, or that translators are a self-selecting group of (masochistic) perfectionists, but I do find it interesting (or tragically comic) how much time and thought is given to details like these when readers often do not notice.

AL: Or maybe sometimes they do notice and write angry letters to the editor asking why they let loose such abominations in print! (Half-) joking aside, translating Chinatown has been to me a study in compromises, like I said, between preserving (indeed protecting) the author’s idiosyncrasies and rehabilitating its Vietnamisms to a degree that sounds acceptable to my own ear with English mode on (not to mention my editors’!). An example of the latter: a great deal of commas were added to break up run-on sentences which sound perfectly understandable in Vietnamese, or at least in a colloquial Vietnamese that Chinatown does a wonderful job of mimicking, but sounds extremely Molly Bloomish in English; another great deal of commas were changed into semicolons; I don’t want to change short choppy sentences into “since,” “because,” and “but” clauses, these clauses seem to be a staple (and beauty) of English prose, Vietnamese compound sentences on the other hand are often a bunch of short statements strung together, it too sounds like the epitome of natural Vietnamese, it’s an eyesore when I see myself writing it down in English (see what I did there?). I guess this is a problem that every Vietnamese-(and Chinese-)to-English translator has to deal with; the only translator who I’ve found preserves the comma-chain gracefully is Kaitlin Rees translating Nhã Thuyên, which gets a pass for being poetry.

There’s one particular subset of the multiple voices however that I think would not be readily recognizable to most English-language readers, and that is the intertextual inserts. In Chinatown, there are a lot of allusions to or quotations from poetry, books, songs, and (contemporary) popular sayings that simply blend in with the general narrative. Et moi, et moi, et moi, Tố Hữu’s poetry, or Trịnh Công Sơn’s lyrics are marked, but “to see Paris and die” is not. And to those Vietnamese readers who unconsciously notice it and smile (or frown) and move on, they all are more or less transparent but to most English readers, they will either be invisible or ring out a discordant note. And the global balance of cultural and textual exchange means that a quote from, say, the Bible or “Ancient Mariner” can be somewhat recognizable to a relatively well-read Vietnamese reader, but a folklore-ified verse by Tố Hữu (who?) can never be that way to an equally well-read Anglophone one. I have thought about these alien visitors and was tempted to just italicize them and call it a day, but was given pause by two thoughts: first, that a similar stealth quote in a book by Atwood or Richard Flanagan must have similarly flown over my Vietnamese readers’ heads; second, that Thuận’s own inserts must have flown over her younger readers’ heads—I hadn’t even known “to see Paris and die” was a Soviet saying before getting suspicious and googling it! And I’m sure I’ve missed references to French literary works with which I’m only vaguely familiar. So I finally chalked them up to untranslatability (of a reference, of an intertextuality, of a whole nexus of lives lived in dreaming and desiring and being influenced by lands that we only know via words) and left them as Easter eggs, perhaps, for readers who may perhaps peep into the Vietnamese version someday.

RP: I love your discussion of intertextuality in Chinatown and how you described them as “alien visitors.” I’m reminded of Édouard Glissant’s idea of the “right to opacity,” where he states: “I thus am able to conceive of the opacity of the other for me, without reproach for my opacity to him…. It is not necessary to try to become the other (to become other) nor to ‘make’ him in my image.”[2] Yet I’m also interested in this tension between “a whole nexus of lives lived in dreaming and desiring and being influenced by lands that we only know via words” and what you described in your Translator’s Note in the Tilted Axis Press edition as Thuận’s disdain for a kind of “textual tourism… of all exoticising representations of Vietnam, domestic or foreign, in good faith or not.”

Thuận’s own positionality, as a Vietnamese writer who writes in Vietnamese but doesn’t reside in Vietnam (in contrast to diasporic Vietnamese writers) also brings an interesting dimension to Chinatown’s intertextuality. I suppose I am trying to ask about how intertextuality in Chinatown illuminates and interrogates this equation between culture = ethnicity = nation = language?

AL: Thank you for introducing me to Glissant’s concept and its relevance to the refusal of textual tourism and essentialist expectations! I think when we discuss “translation” in theory, or in the abstract, we often (perhaps unconsciously) presume an essentialist idea of the original as a representative of an also essentialist nation/language/culture (which gets worse when it comes to a “less translated language” such as Vietnamese). Reality, more often than not, is far more fragmented, and Chinatown is a good example.

Demographically, Thuận fits in the “immigrant author” status—not in relation to her adopted country the way we may say about Nabokov or Conrad, because she doesn’t write in French and her novels (in French translations) are categorized as littérature étrangère on the French shelves, but to her old homeland, the way we in Vietnamese say “nhà văn hải ngoại” (overseas writer) with a hint of the Other. Her debut novel, Made in Vietnam, was published in California by Văn Mới, the quintessential literature-in-exile publisher that perhaps parents of diaCRITICS readers have read; and Chinatown was reprinted in its entirety on the online tiền vệ, one of several such global-Vietnamese forums in the early 21st century. But I doubt that many readers of “văn học hải ngoại,” which is a concept associated mostly (at least in the suspicious eyes of domestic cultural officials) with memoirs of Southern generals and laments for a lost country—the Sympathizer general’s milieu—would have been familiar with the very Northern references and concerns of a Hanoi girl who watches Soviet movies and navigates socialist mores. And in fact when Chinatown and Paris, 11th of August were first published, the discussions on her art didn’t really characterize her as an overseas Vietnamese, and I, in all my naïveté of a 20-something who ardently read talawas and similar websites but assumed the Vietnamophone world revolves around this land shaped like an S, imagined Thuận simply as a Vietnamese writer who happens to live in Paris, and her narrator a Vietnamese who went to Paris for a dozen years maybe as an adventure?

But then again, Thuận was not simply a Northern writer who writes books with shearing remarks that may raise one or ten brows among the publishing officials (if memory serves me right, a few things were cut in the first edition of Chinatown). I think little was mentioned also of the fact that her father-in-law and literary idol was the famous Trần Dần, victim and symbol of a very dark period in Northern literature history, the rehabilitation of whose works only began with many a misstep a few years after the publication of Chinatown itself. So she doesn’t have a straight-forward relationship with her immediate readers either, many of whom would also fail to recognize certain references thanks to the suppression of collective memories about the pre-Đổi Mới era (I had to consult her on quite a few things during translation), and of course, have no first-hand knowledge whatsoever about Paris.

Linda Lê said she belongs to nowhere as a writer. My impression is Thuận seems to belong to everywhere she lives. Constantly in motion, she owns her realities with gusto, even as her characters are perpetually out of place. And that kind of existing, not between worlds but occupying worlds at the same time, is what in my opinion makes her works not only artistically intriguing, but also socially relevant.

Moreover, when you are writing towards such a diverse readership, it’s impossible not to assume that opacity would be an inherent part of the reading experience. Long before her works appeared in translation, Thuận’s first Others read her in her own language. And I think this is a truth applicable to all authors and books if we try to write, or read, “interbubblically”— across the own bubbles we live in. I think it’s part of the reason why she sticks with her style, of minimal glossing, which a translator can only respect and preserve as much as readably possible. Because when there are so many conflicting perspectives, which will you choose as a starting point to gloss? Who’s Tố Hữu, for example? The idealistic young revolutionary-poet? The spokesperson of a whole generation? The propagandist of the enemy? The culture mandarin who ruined the lives of Trần Dần and his cohort, including his own nephew Phùng Quán? The prolific author of poems that have passed into the realm of folklore that we had to cram for our exams? Or all of the above? A Vietnamese editor would be hard pressed deciding on an explanation for an “international” audience. And neutrality is impossible. So even if you think you lay claim to the same set of references, this sameness is often illusory.

And sometimes it is the same reference but the signifier changes! Deborah and I had a lengthy and somewhat silly discussion whether to call Vĩnh’s iconic food “roast quail” the way Vietnamese restaurants in London call it, or “roast pigeon” which is more biologically accurate. Finally, I pulled the “but the expats in Vietnam” card and got my pigeon. But it’s a constant challenge when there are not enough established names for your concept or the precedents are inadequate, when you deal with a country that features little in Anglophone writing.

RP: Your discussion of Trần Dần and Tố Hữu and your aforementioned “global balance of cultural and textural export” also reminds me of how a certain horizon of expectations is constructed for works from a country that (to quote you) “features little in Anglophone writing.” Or, when it is featured, it is often from select perspectives that often elide those of Vietnamese people (who are also, of course, not a monolith) themselves. For instance, Chinatown also seems to interrogate how foreign writers have historically written about Vietnam (the allusions to Marguerite Duras being the most obvious example). How did you manage to walk this tightrope, of refusing to cater to certain readers’ expectations of what Vietnam and Vietnamese literature should be, while also trying to make it “accessible” so to speak?

AL: I think what’s immediately relevant to Thuận’s myth-busting project in Chinatown is less literary but more social discursive. To understand it, we should go back to the 1990s when the beginning of đổi mới was still fresh in memory and the Soviet collapse jumpstarted, as mentioned in the book, the mutual inching-closer of Vietnam and the West. The government of Vietnam, in the need of better PR for a whole new audience, embarked on a total overhaul of the national image. The phrase “Vietnam is not a war,” still much heard nowadays, dated from that time. I remember how in 2000, a huge tourism campaign was launched with the slogan “Vietnam: Destination for the New Millennium,” and the accompanying photo of the sweetly smiling woman in áo dài and the conical hat was as ubiquitous in Hanoi streets as Thuận’s orchid trees. And it paid off: since Bill Clinton’s visit at the end of 2000, Vietnam has hosted a plethora of international summits, conferences, tournaments, festivals, each one another step into the embrace of the international (Western) community. The touristification of the country began to climb to exhausting heights. In postwar cultural products, the country’s natural beauty and cultural richness had been highlighted to offset the painful and gruesome memories of previous years; it became “the way of advertisement” to charm tourists, foreign as well as domestic.

This orientalist treatment of the whole country is what I think Thuận set out to criticize, and what makes Chinatown both timeless and incredibly responsive to the moment of its writing. Such a mindset features thickly in the book, even in sympathetic characters: the French guy’s gaze towards the narrator is arguably similar to hers toward her husband, or her son Vĩnh’s towards his perfect Chinese friend. His genuine (and proud) interest in off-the-beaten-path seven-course snake meals stems from the same place as the hypothetical Việt kiều’s clichéd reverence towards the Lotus Village painting, or the narrator’s parents’ dream about a Franco-Vietnamese wedding. I’m not against exoticism (and tourism) per se—it’s, I think, a necessary step towards falling in love with another land and getting—or wanting to get to know it. But Chinatown provides eloquent examples of how believing unconditionally in those fantasies has a way of tripping you up when you follow your dream to the promised land, whether communist Leningrad, capitalistic Paris, unspoiled pastoral Vietnam, or world-power China.

Because on the other hand, as a book about France, Chinatown is also subverting a trope of the protagonist going from a poor and oppressive country to a first-world land with dignity restored, freedom earned, and success finally bestowed, with a love interest and a happily ever after. Thuận’s narrators, their immigrant friends, and even their second generations, dwell in an in-between space, struggling not only to make their living but also to make sense of their lives. Just as Vietnamese audiences were astonished to hear about the Chinese of Vietnam, Thuận loves to tell how her French audiences are often surprised to read about such poverty on the fringes of Paris. But neither are these stories of stranger(land) danger or immigrants as misfits. Thuận’s fictions do not seek to replace a metanarrative with another one; rather, they want to go beyond ready-made patterns, to try to see lives as they are lived daily by the people on the ground. And from an amassing of such unique fates, a common visage of (an) Other could be paradoxically constructed, but only if we are to engage with each of them on their own terms.

On the other hand: Chinatown does function (and I think was also conceived) as an answer to Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, and in the final pages the narrator, now a budding author, has her first inklings about how the cards are stacked against her in the expectations of the international literary market. But if you ask me, I wouldn’t be able to say with any certainty what those expectations are. I have the impression that apart from a few famous names such as Dương Thu Hương or Bảo Ninh, most of the Anglophone general public in 2022 thinks of diasporic literature when considering “modern Vietnamese literature.” More specifically, of the new authors, Vietnamese-American (and Canadian, French, German and so forth), who want to write to their new homeland. As diverse as they are, they share a set of roughly common memories, motifs, struggles. Thuận, who identifies as a “Vietnamese-Vietnamese” author writing in Vietnamese, doesn’t write to explain her heritage, or stake a claim for her rights, or conduct a journey to find her roots, to a (mostly) white audience. She is already a master of her world, addressing her peers. And reading a translated text equates to an act of voyeurism or eavesdropping on “native talk” that is very different from reading a text tailored to your audience.

Most of those whom I’ve talked to after Chinatown was published said this would be the first Vietnamese novel they’ve read. I guess they would either treat it as a standalone work, unburdened by any tradition, or it will be the starting point for their personal expectations about Vietnamese literature. I envy them because it’s an incredible start, but I also regret that they don’t have the chance to appreciate what an innovative book it is after a diet of “traditional” Vietnamese writings.


[1] Thuận, Chinatown, trans. Nguyễn An Lý (London, UK: Tilted Axis Press, 2022), 118.

[2] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 193.


Chinatown

by Thuận, translated by Nguyễn An Lý

Tilted Axis Press, £9.99


Nguyễn An Lý is on a perpetually delayed mission to understand Vietnam. She coedits the online Zzz Review and is still trying on political and cultural stances.

Rachel Min Park is currently a Ph.D student in the Department of Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. Her research interests encompass Cold War epistemologies of gender in Korea and Vietnam, as well as forms of gendered globality, transnational Marxisms, and postwar revolutionary women’s cultures.

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